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Documenting the Destruction of Bronze Drums... Or is it? [청동북]


Documenting the Destruction of Bronze Drums... Or is it?


This is the first time I'm writing "about" Prof. Kelley's blog posts. So far, I've translated around 60 posts from his blog in the hopes that more Koreans will be able to acess quality writing on Vietnamese history (by a professional historian).

My most recent translation from the Le Minh Khai blog was that of "Documenting the Destruction of Bronze Drums." [Translated here.] Professor Kelley posted this back in 2015. So it's possible that by now he has different thoughts on the same subject matter. But nonetheless, this is a fascinating topic and I want to add on.


So first, let me summarize what professor Kelley wrote on this particular post.

1) There are some "Vietnamese" bronze drums with classical Chinese inscriptions on them, but very few in number.

2) The two specimen of such drums (mentioned in the post) have inscriptions that follow a distict formula: The inscriptions mention a place name, and then the weight of the drum. 

3) Bronze-wares with places incribed on them are typical of ritual wares and the places signified on the two drums appear to point at regions of modern-day Vietnam.

4) Inscribing the weight of the bronze is odd because usually, only bronzewares actually used as weights had such inscriptions.

5) Thus we see that these drums have two different types of information; place name (ritual purpose inscription) and weight (practical purpose inscription).

6) Prof. Kelley theorizes that these drums were "taken to be melted down and forged into something else."

7) It is possibile (although uncertain) that these drums are related to the Han dynasty legend that general Ma Yuan melted bronze drums into a bronze horse after his conquest of modern-day North Vietnam.

8) This legend can be interpreted as an act of transforming pre-existing "indigenous" symbols of power (drums) into a new symbol for the conquerer.

9) This means that the two drums are among the few lucky survivors of this melt-and-reforge process.


So when I first read this theory, I was excited! Bronze drums with mystery inscriptions, tension between symbolic powers, destruction of civilization, and legends being proven through artifacts... All very exciting!

And naturally I wanted to read more about the inscriptions. Prof. Kelley has kindly provided a link to a website (belonging to a Dr. Nguyen Viet, an archaeologist) where some of his publications can be viewed. 


The two drums (let's say exhibit A and B, for convenience) have the following inscriptions.

A) 
回河州 / 鼓 / 重兩千百八十 
place/ use / weight 

B) 
玖甄 / 重六均五斤八兩 / 名曰富 / 第未十一
place  /  weight  /  name  /  number

Indeed, both drums hold information about the place names as well as their respective weights.

But then, Dr. Nguyen makes reference to two more bronze artifact with Chinese inscriptions of a very similar formula[here and here]. Only this time, they are not drums, but bronze pots. (Dr. Nguyen says "situlae").

Dr. Nguyen deciphers the inscriptions as below. 

C)
龍縣 / 重六 (衡) / 名曰果 / 第未五十二 / 容一廿一斗七升半升
place / weight / name / number / capacity    

D)
累樓  /  壺  / 容 一石 / 名曰萬歲 / 第未十六
place / use / capacity/ name/ number    


The first thing that strikes me as odd is how there are information about the capacity (how much volume it can hold) of these pots. 

On one hand, it would still make sense that bronze "pots" were symbolic ritual objects. In fact, great many Chinese bronze vessels are pots.

And if these bronzewares were all meant to be reforged, recording their weight would make sense. As Prof. Kelley argues, it could be recorded in order to know how much bronze can be obtained by melting the object.

However, what good does the information on capacity do here?


So I think the practical information (weight and capacity) that have been inscribed is not an indication of how these bronzewares were meant to be destroyed. Exhibit D for example, does not have its weight recorded at all, just the capacity. 

So it makes more sense that these information were various measurements made on objects that are probably newly procured! Whoever the inscribers were, they wanted to know more about these objects; the name, the use, where they are from, etc. 

And they carefully numbered them as well. Item no. 11 was a drum. Item no. 16 was a vase. Item no. 52 was a pot. But not all of them. Maybe they were expecting to collect only a handful of artifacts, but then things got out of hand. 



So I do agree these were symbolic objects of the indegenous people, which had strong symbolic names such as Wealth(富), Myriad Years(萬歲), or Fruition(果).

And I also think they were collected by a powerful foreigner (if not conquerer) who did not know very much about Northern Vietnam. (Dr. Nguyen makes a similar point about the inscription of "names" as well)


But no, I don't think they were intended to be destroyed and re-forged into other items. The pots clearly have information that was intended for continuous use; how much water this vase can hold, for example.

Or, it could have been that the "foreigners" were recording this as cultural historical knowledge of newly acquired artifiacts. One similar example that I can think of right now is a 15th century Chinese person writing about an antique bronzeware.

"The descendants of the false ruler Chen Youliang were scattered throughout Huang and were all menial people. One family owned a you [a bronze shape rather like a bucket with a domed lid] of very ancient manufacture, which my friend Wu Yuanbi obtained for one bolt of brocaded satin, when magistrate of the district. The bronze was big enough to contain a dou [10.31 litres] of millet, with a colour of yellow earth both inside and out, and flecks of vermilion and azure init, and was inlaid with gold, silver and copper. It had corroded and bore an inscription all in rectangular characters. It was a genuine Shang object.

主陳友諒之苗裔,散處於黃,皆樸魯之人。有一家藏一,其制甚古,吾友吳元璧判府,以彩段一端易之。大可容粟,內外多黃土色,間有朱翠,錯以金銀銅之質。已化矣,文多丁字,商物也。

[The English translation is from the book Superfluous Things (pg. 99) by Craig Clunas. Emphasis is mine.]


On a final note, I know that prof. Kelley is not a huge fan of the idea that the elites were recording things "just out of an academic desire to record information," but who knows? Maybe those foreign aggressors were feeling particularly nice that day.

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